It was the spring of 1992, and Rodney King’s LAPD assailants had just been acquitted. The beating wasn’t an isolated incident. It was the culmination of “a massive show of force designed to deliver a strong message to the gangs.” That message included military-style raids like “Operation Hammer” with military equipment such as battering rams and massive armored vehicles.
That’s what happens when the military practice of “a show of force” is mistaken as an option for law enforcement strategy to “protect and serve.”
Now that mistake is about to become national policy. The Trump administration has quietly reversed rollbacks put in place by Obama that limited the amount of surplus military equipment police departments could use. The White House says this program will boost law enforcement, from fighting crime to preventing terrorist attacks like those we’ve seen in places like Barcelona and Orlando.
Since 2001, some $5 billion in military surplus equipment has been handed to police officers, including large-caliber ammunition, battering rams, and other weapons more suitable to a combat zone than an American city. When President Obama put stricter limits on the transfer of military surplus to local law enforcement, he noted how “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force.” Occasionally this transfer has drifted into the realm of the absurd. Keene, NH — population: 23,000 — applied for a military grade armored personnel truck to fight the “terrorism threat” at its annual Pumpkin festival.
But without proper training, procedures, or doctrine that the military spends years developing, arming police officers with armored vehicles will not make our cities safer, whether from violent gangs or violent extremists.
It would seem advocates of this program learned all the wrong lessons from watching our wars unfold abroad. What the U.S. military did to pacify Iraq’s cities was 90 percent policing and 10 percent military. It spent the last fifteen years developing tools that are less powerful and less lethal. That goes in spades in its fight against insurgents based in dense urban terrain, whether for legal, normative, or public relations reasons.
Our soldiers turned a corner in Iraq not by applying more military force but by becoming more like policemen. They came out from behind their fortresses. They studied the human terrain. They mingled with locals to build trust, understand their environments and glean intelligence about those they are trying to protect. That is the essence of good police work.
Meanwhile, American police officers are moving in the opposite direction. They are walling themselves off from the populace behind armor and shields and mountains of military gear?
Take, for instance, Los Angeles in the 1980s. Police brutality complaints skyrocketed as Angelinos became increasingly isolated from an increasingly militarized police force. Isolation became resentment, which became hostility which exploded in the spring of 1992. The city burned.